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What is disrespectful behavior in the workplace?

Disrespectful behavior in the workplace can take many forms and have serious consequences for employees and companies. Some common examples of disrespect include bullying, harassment, discrimination, gossiping, ignoring others, rudeness, belittling colleagues, taking credit for others’ work, and more. Unfortunately, disrespectful conduct is all too common in some work environments and can negatively impact productivity, morale, retention, and the company’s reputation. It’s important for both employees and employers to understand what constitutes disrespect, how to prevent it, and how to address issues as they arise.

What are some examples of disrespectful behavior?

Disrespectful workplace behavior can generally be grouped into the following categories:


Discrimination involves treating employees differently based on protected characteristics like race, gender, age, religion, disability status, or sexual orientation. Examples include:

  • Denying promotions to older workers based on age
  • Paying women less than men for the same work
  • Failing to provide religious accommodations
  • Excluding an employee with a disability from events

Bullying and Harassment

Bullying refers to repeated mistreatment that harms, intimidates, offends, degrades or humiliates an employee. Harassment is similar but focuses on protected characteristics. Examples include:

  • Verbal abuse, threats, shouting
  • Spreading rumors or gossip about someone
  • Sabotaging someone’s work
  • Unwelcome touching or repeated romantic advances
  • Offensive comments about race, gender identity, etc.


Incivility involves acting rudely or discourteously towards others. Examples include:

  • Interrupting or talking over others
  • Failing to say “please” and “thank you”
  • Having side conversations during meetings
  • Being impatient or rolling eyes
  • Ignoring or excluding certain employees


Insubordination refers to willfully disobeying authority figures in the workplace. Examples include:

  • Refusing to follow reasonable instructions from a boss
  • Arguing or showing open hostility to supervisors
  • Intentionally working slower than required
  • Circumventing policies and procedures

Why is disrespect harmful in the workplace?

Disrespectful conduct in the workplace can negatively impact the work environment in many ways:

Productivity and performance

Disrespectful behavior is distracting and stressful. Targeted employees spend time and energy worrying about harassment or bullying rather than working. Even bystanders can suffer from reduced morale. Ultimately, this leads to lower individual and team productivity.

Physical and mental health

Being treated in a continuously disrespectful manner can take a toll on employees’ health. Targets of bullying/harassment often suffer from anxiety, depression, sleep issues, high blood pressure, and weakened immune systems.

Retention and absenteeism

Employees who face disrespectful treatment are more likely to quit their jobs. Victims of harassment have higher absenteeism as they try to avoid abusive co-workers. High turnover from resignations or terminations can be very costly.

Company culture and reputation

Disrespect that goes unchecked can become part of the company culture, leading to low morale, distrust, and dysfunction. Word may spread externally, making it harder to recruit talent and harming the company’s public reputation.

Legal liability

Some forms of disrespect, like discrimination and harassment, violate labor laws like Title VII. Companies can face expensive lawsuits, settlement payouts, and regulatory fines if disrespectful conduct is allowed to persist.

How can disrespectful behavior be prevented?

There are steps that both individual employees and leadership can take to promote civility and respect:

Model respectful conduct

Employees should treat co-workers how they wish to be treated – professionally, courteously, and politely. Managers need to demonstrate and reinforce respectful behavior.

Establish clear policies

Companies need strong anti-discrimination, anti-bullying/anti-harassment, and code of conduct policies. These make expectations clear.

Train employees

HR should conduct regular training on diversity, anti-harassment, communication, conflict resolution, and stress management. This develops a respectful mindset.

Encourage reporting

Leaders must create safe, confidential ways for employees to report disrespect. A culture of silence enables harm, while reporting allows intervention.

Intervene early

At the first sign of insults, exclusion, or intimidation, managers should privately warn involved employees. This stops small issues from escalating.

Investigate properly

Allegations of disrespect should be examined confidentially and impartially. Witnesses, evidence, and impact on the target need full consideration.

How should disrespectful conduct be handled?

Steps for addressing disrespect include:

Channel to HR

Concerns around discrimination, harassment, retaliation, or hostile climate should go to HR for formal investigation. An outside party may need to assist.

Open communication

For minor disputes between co-workers, respectful discussion may resolve the conflict. However, mediation with a neutral third party is recommended.

Firm discipline

If investigation confirms misconduct like harassment or discrimination, discipline is warranted. Sanctions match severity and may include training, probation, suspension, demotion, or termination.

Support target

The employee subjected to disrespect needs full backing from leadership during and after the resolution process. This provides reassurance and facilitates healing.

Post-investigation review

After a situation is resolved, assess contributing factors. Identify steps to improve policies, training, communication, or culture to prevent recurrence.


Showing respect and earning respect in turn should be top priorities in any workplace. The consequences of disrespectful conduct like discrimination, bullying, incivility, and insubordination can profoundly harm employees as well as productivity and morale. Preventing disrespect requires proactive efforts by both individuals and leadership to model desired behaviors, establish expectations through policies and training, encourage reporting, and intervene at the first sign of issues. When disrespect does occur, responsible investigation and discipline paired with validation and protection of the target can begin to repair the damage. Ongoing vigilance and improvement is key to fostering an environment where all employees feel valued and empowered to do their best work in service of the organization’s mission.